Tafsir Zone - Surah 8: al-Anfal (The Spoils Of War )

Tafsir Zone

Surah al-Anfal 8:55
 

Overview (Verses 55 - 57)

This final passage of the sūrah includes a number of rules for dealing with other camps and communities in times of peace and war. It also speaks of the internal organization of the Muslim community and the regulation of its relations with other communities. It speaks of the Islamic view of pledges and covenants in all situations, as well as the ties of blood, race, homeland and faith. This gives us a host of rules and regulations in all these matters. Some of these are final and apply in all situations, while others are provisional, dealing with the situation that prevailed at the time. These were to be amended later, when Sūrah 9, Repentance, was revealed towards the end of the Madinan period. These rules and regulations include:

Those who enter into a treaty with the Muslims and then break their treaty are the worst creatures. The Muslims should, therefore, teach them a lesson that strikes fear in their hearts and in the hearts of those who follow them, contemplating a similar breach of their own treaty or thinking of launching a treacherous attack on the Muslim community.


Those groups who have concluded a treaty with the Muslims, but the Muslim leadership has reason to believe that they may be involved in treacherous action, may be put on notice of termination of their treaty. When this is done, the Islamic leadership is free to fight them, teach them a lesson and make of them an example for those who take a similar attitude.


The Muslim community, which represents the camp following God’s guidance, must always be prepared, maintain a position of strength, be as well equipped as possible, so that it is always held in awe by other communities. This will ensure better security for the land of Islam, as hostile forces will think twice before launching an attack on it. It will also make such forces submit to the requirement of allowing the advocates of the faith to fulfil their task of making God’s message known to people and calling on them to accept it. They will also refrain from trying to prevent anyone in their land from accepting the faith if he wishes to do so. Sovereignty will thus be acknowledged to belong to God alone, and no one other than Him may lay claim to it.

If any party of unbelievers is inclined to have an agreement of peaceful co- existence with the Muslim community, the Muslim leadership will accept this and conclude such an agreement. If they entertain thoughts of treachery, and there is no visible evidence of such thoughts, the Muslims will entrust the whole matter to God who will take care of any would-be traitors.

Jihād is a duty of Muslims, even when they are heavily outnumbered. With God’s help, they can achieve victory. Each one of them is equal to ten of the enemy. In the worst situations when the Muslims are at their weakest, everyone of them is equal to two of the enemy force. The duty of jihād does not wait until parity with the enemy is achieved. All that the Muslims should do is to mobilize their best forces, place their full trust in God, remain patient in adversity and steadfast in battle. Moreover, they must leave the rest to God. After all, they have a power that other camps do not have.

The first goal of the Muslim community is to destroy the power of tyranny by all available means. If the taking of captives in battle and releasing them for ransom does not help achieve that, then such measures are to be discounted. It is a permanent rule that God’s Messengers and their followers should not take captives until they have demonstrated their power, destroyed the might of their enemy and established their own authority. When that has been accomplished, there may be no harm in taking captives and receiving ransom for their release.

Spoils of war are permissible for the Muslims to take. The same is the case with ransom in return for the release of any captives they might have taken after they have strenuously battled and demonstrated their power.

When captives are taken by the Muslims, these captives should be given a good idea of Islam. They should also be encouraged to accept it. They should be told that God promises them what is superior to what is taken from them, whether in spoils of war or in ransom. They should also be warned against any attempt of treachery.

The central bond that brings people together in Muslim society is that of faith.

Loyalty and allegiance in that society are based on faith and organization at the same time. Those who have accepted the faith and migrated to its land and those who welcomed them into their land, giving them full support, are one single group with mutual ties of faith and duties of protection. By contrast, those who accepted the faith without moving to the land of Islam have no commitment of mutual protection with the Muslim camp. This means that there is no duty binding the Muslim state to give them support. The Muslim community will give them active support only when they are attacked because of their faith by a group who have no covenant with the Muslims.

The fact that the central bond in Muslim society is faith does not preclude that relatives have an added bond of loyalty when the two main requirements of faith and organization are fulfilled. Blood relationship does not initiate any tie of loyalty when the bond of faith is not in existence.

This is a brief outline of the rules and regulations included in this final passage of the sūrah, outlining the most important elements of the Islamic system dealing with internal and external affairs.

When Treaties Are Breached

Verses 55-63 at the beginning of this passage deal primarily with a real situation that the Muslim community had to come to grips with at the time when the first Muslim state was established in Madinah. These verses provided the Islamic leadership with guidance and rules to apply in dealing with that situation. They represent a basic element in the international relations between the Muslim community and other groups. They remained in force, with minor amendments that were subsequently incorporated. These verses make it clear that it is perfectly appropriate to conclude agreements of peaceful co-existence with other communities and groups, as long as such agreements are certain to be taken seriously, respected and honoured. If the other camp manipulates these agreements and uses them as a shield to cover up its treacherous designs, taking steps to launch an assault against the Muslims, then the Muslim leadership is fully entitled to terminate these agreements, making the other side fully aware of that termination. Once this is done, the Muslim leadership is free to choose the time when to attack, making sure that any such attack is powerful enough to strike fear in the heart of all who contemplate a hostile attitude towards the Muslim society, whether openly or in secret. On the other hand, those who are interested in a genuine peace with the Muslim camp, have no intention of opposing the Islamic message or stopping its advocacy, and demonstrate their inclination to peace, may enjoy such a relationship of real peace.

All this was clearly meant to deal with real situations that affected relations between the Muslim state and neighbouring camps. When the Muslim state enjoys security, having no physical impediments to its task of conveying God’s message to people everywhere, it has no reason to refuse peaceful co-existence. At the same time, it does not allow for peace agreements to be used as a cover-up for intended treachery.

The practical situation in Madinah that these verses addressed resulted from the circumstances of the early period of the Prophet’s settlement in that city. These are outlined by Imām Ibn al-Qayyim in his priceless rook Zād al-Ma`ād. Although this summary is quoted in the Prologue to this volume, it is useful to repeat it here.

This is a chapter setting an outline of the Prophet’s attitude to the unbelievers and the hypocrites, right from the time when he first received his message until he departed from this life:

The first revelation bestowed on him was “Read in the name of your Lord who created.” (96: 1) This was the point at which he became a Prophet. It was an order to him to read, alone. No order was given at this point that he should deliver any message. Later on, God revealed to him: “You that are wrapped up in your cloak! Arise and warn.” (74: 1-2) Thus He made him a Prophet when He said to him, `Read’, and then made him a Messenger when He told him, `Arise and warn.’ He then ordered him to warn his immediate clan. He followed this by warning his own people, then the other Arab tribes close to Makkah, then all the Arabs, and finally all mankind.

The Prophet thus spent more than a dozen years after his initial prophethood advocating his message, without fighting. He was ordered throughout this period not to take up arms; rather, he should remain patient and forbearing. Then he received permission to migrate, and another permission to fight. God then ordered him to fight those who wage war against him, and not to fight those who stand aside, refraining from such a fight. Later, the Prophet was ordered to fight the unbelievers until all submission is made only to God. At this point, the unbelievers were divided into three categories with regard to their relationship with the Prophet (peace be upon him). In the first category were those with whom he concluded a peace treaty. The second category included those who were at war with the Prophet, while the third were those who had submitted to his authority and were under his protection.

The Prophet was ordered to fulfil his obligations under any peace treaty as long as the other party fulfilled their obligations. Should he fear that they may resort to treachery, he should give them notice of the termination of their treaty. He must not fight them until he had informed them of such termination. He was also ordered to fight any parry which violated their peace treaty with him.

When Sūrah 9, Repentance, was revealed, it outlined the rulings applicable to each of the three categories. Thus, the Prophet was ordered to fight those of the people of earlier revelations who waged war against him until they had been subdued and agreed to pay submission tax, or jizyah, or accept Islam. He was further ordered to strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites. Thus, he struggled against the unbelievers with sword and spear, and against the hypocrites with logic and argument. He was also ordered in Sūrah 9 to declare a general disavowal, terminating all treaties with unbelievers.

However, the people who held peace treaties with the Prophet were divided into three groups. The first were those who had been unfaithful to their treaties and were in clear violation of them: these he was ordered to fight. He actually fought them and was victorious. The second group included those with a treaty lasting for a specific time. If these had honoured their obligations under the treaty and did not aid others against the Prophet and the Muslim community, the Prophet was ordered to honour their treaty for as long as it lasted. The third group included those who had no treaty with the Prophet but had not fought with him and also those who had an open treaty specifying no time. He was ordered to give all these groups four months’ notice, after which he could fight them.

Thus, the Prophet fought and killed those who were treacherous, violating their treaty, and put on four-months’ notice those without a treaty or with an open-ended one. He was also to honour his obligations to those who honoured theirs under their treaties. All those in this category adopted Islam before the end of their respective terms. He imposed jizyah or submission tax on those under his authority. When we closely examine this scholarly summary in the light of the events of the period and the dates of the revelation of the different Qur’ānic verses and sūrahs outlining these rules and regulations we definitely conclude that the verses we are looking at in this sūrah represent a middle stage between the situation in the early days of the Islamic reign in Madinah and that which prevailed after the revelation of Sūrah 9, Repentance. All relevant statements must be studied in this light. Although the verses we have here include some very basic rules, they do not put these in their final form. These are finally stated in Sūrah 9. The events which took place later in the Prophet’s lifetime represent a practical example of how these rules are to be implemented.

The Worst of All Creatures

Indeed, the worst of all creatures in God’s sight are the ones who have denied the truth, and therefore will not believe; those with whom you have concluded a treaty, and then they break their treaty at every occasion, entertaining no sense of fearing God. (Verses 55-56)

The Arabic term used in this verse for “creatures” signifies walking, which makes the description sound like, “the worst of those that walk on earth.” This term applies to all walking creatures, particularly animals, but includes human beings. However, it has clear additional connotations when it refers to humans. It makes those to whom it refers appear like animals. Thus those humans become the worst of all animals that walk on earth. These are the hardened unbelievers who will not accept the faith. They are the ones who break their treaties all the time and do not entertain any sense of fearing God.

Several reports speak of which groups were meant in this statement. Different reports mention the three Jewish tribes of Qaynuqā`, al- Nađīr and Qurayżah, while other reports suggest that they were the Bedouin Arabs in the areas around Madinah. Historical events and the statement itself admit all these possibilities, as all of these groups did break their treaties with the Prophet, one after the other. The pagan Arabs were guilty of this on several occasions. What is important is that we should know that these verses speak of actual events that took place before the Battle of Badr and after it, till the time when these verses were revealed. However, the rule that they outline, which also explains the nature of those who break their treaties, applies to all such situations. Those who have become hardened in disbelief “will not believe.” Their very nature has gone awry and they have become the worst of creatures. They break every agreement they make. Thus they shed yet another human characteristic, namely, faithfulness. They run loose, like animals, except that animals are restricted by their nature while these know no restriction. In God’s sight, they are the worst of all creatures.

Those people who cannot be trusted to honour an agreement they make must not be allowed to feel secure, just like they deprived others of enjoying a sense of security. Their punishment is that they should live in fear and that they should become an example to those who follow their suit. God’s Messenger and his followers in succeeding generations are commanded to mete out punishment to them on every occasion: “Should you meet them in battle, make of them a fearsome example for those who follow them, so that they may reflect and take it to heart.” (Verse 57)

This verse paints an image of a ferocious attack that is bound to strike fear into the hearts of the enemies. The image is so powerful that hearing it is enough to make people flee. We need not ask about those who are at the receiving end of such punishment. God commands His Messenger to level such a powerful strike against those who are in the habit of violating their treaties and who have broken all human restraints. Such a strike has the dual purpose of protecting the Muslim community and destroying the power of those who try to undermine its position. This should deter all people from trying to stop the Islamic march.